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Pay the Same, Get More: No New Boulder Franchise Agreement

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If Boulder makes a commitment to get more information to voters for November's ballot, it has a real chance to pay the same but get more from its energy supply. And "more" means freedom to examine options for lots more clean energy either from Xcel Energy or by way of creating a municipal utility.

And according to former City Council member Steve Pomerance, who spoke for the Decarbonization Tech Team at the July 13 City Council meeting, energy providers are already expressing interest in helping Boulder get clean energy apart from Xcel Energy. (The video is on the city`s Web site under "Council," so check it out. Scroll down to July 13 and hit "load meeting" and play.)

With the Xcel franchise coming to an end this year, the City Council will soon vote on what to put on November's ballot to let Boulderites vote their preferences.

The city has already begun to speak. Polling done by Tamley-Drake Research with 625 respondents has shown the city is divided about the franchise proposition -- and that people are under-informed. Early in the polling process, respondents lined up 43 percent in favor of franchise renewal, 23 percent opposed and 33 percent undecided.

But when given more information during the poll (described as being "for Xcel" or "for the city" by various people), undecided respondents switched to opposing franchise renewal -- by 35 percent (with only 2 percent gain on the opposing side). This is perhaps the most meaningful result: With information, voters move to seeing renewal as a bad deal and municipalization as good.

Also, with more information, voters increase their support for the idea of a utility tax to replace the $4 million the city would lose from Xcel's franchise fee after it expires. Xcel's Craig Eicher indicated that without a franchise the company lacks the authority to collect and remit the money -- however, the company does have the authority to extend the franchise, as evidenced by Xcel's choice to extend Boulder's franchise from August to December this year. It seems the company is willing to push Boulder by refusing to extend the franchise further, as requested.

Another important sign from the poll was a preference for fast addition of renewable energy so pronounced it was called "lopsided" by Bob Drake.

In the muddled results of the poll there seems to be a pathway: With more information, Boulderites tend to favor the tools for life without a franchise. So, it makes sense to aggressively promote the replacement tax and allow the franchise to lapse. The lights stay on, going back to Xcel remains an option, and monthly bills would be the same as under a franchise. And next year, the city would proceed to research and educate the public on the options for getting much more renewable energy that they clearly want.

Xcel's view is that under its franchise, Boulder would have no restriction for rapid decarbonization: We can invest in solar gardens (helpful, but the program is capped), or subscribe to WindSource (helpful, but the rates shield customers from the protections and price advantages that renewables will give down the road). Eicher asserted that Boulder could push for more clean energy policy through the Legislature, or by intervening at the Public Utilities Commission -- as if that were a haven of democracy and choice.

Under former Gov. Bill Owens, commissioners at the PUC literally ousted any intervenor who mentioned the phrase "climate change," and climate science papers introduced as evidence were all excluded. Under chairman Ron Binz who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter, admission for science documents was nearly as grim. Imagine the PUC under a Scott McInnis administration, which is to say, a governor who has demonstrated by trivializing his plagiarism fiasco that he doesn't value research. Working through the PUC is not democracy and choice, it's a brain damage.

Staying with Xcel means paying a hefty premium for being an asset to an investor-owned utility with exorbitant overhead. People worried about "redistribution of wealth" should be fiercely opposed to a 20-year contract with a monopoly in which ratepayers are assets to be leveraged for profits and payouts to investors.

However, a municipal utility, which Boulder could form with providers already making calls, could save the city money over time. According to the American Public Power Association, investor-owned utilities charge roughly 17 percent more in rates than munis. The free market is great, but being part of an investor-owned utility is no free market. Better to push for local control over our power, and the ballot this fall should provide us those options at stable costs.

A version of this column first appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera